Barry Jenkins on how new series 'Underground Railroad' challenges concept of 'Make America Great Again'

·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·4 min read

If, when you first heard the term “underground railroad” as a child, you pictured a literal train traveling beneath the surface, you are not alone. That notion partly inspired author Colson Whitehead to write his 2016 bestseller The Underground Railroad, which looks at the titular route to freedom for escaped slaves — actually a network of aboveground secret pathways and safe houses — with a magical realism twist that includes an actual subterranean train.

The idea was also relatable to Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning visionary behind Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) who has adapted Whitehead’s novel into a a dazzling, sometimes darkly violent and deeply affecting 10-part series debuting on Amazon Prime and drawing instant acclaim.

“I had the same thing when I was a kid, I thought the underground railroad was a real thing,” Jenkins told Yahoo Entertainment (watch above). “I can’t say it’s common but it does exist.

“And I don’t know if this show is going to help vanquish that thought,” he adds laughing. “But anything that drives people to consider my ancestors I think is worth creating.”

'The Underground Railroad' (Amazon)
'The Underground Railroad' (Amazon)

The Underground Railroad follows the travels of tough teenager Cora (South African breakout Thuso Mbedo), who, along with the studious Caesar (Aaron Pierre), flees the wicked confines of enslavement on a Georgia plantation. William Jackson Harper costars as the Royal, a freeborn Black man who aids Cora, while Joel Edgerton plays a man hunting her.

For Jenkins, the series serves as a message that we must acknowledge America’s dark and tragic history at a time when political slogans like former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” romanticize the past.

“For me, with the journey of this show, [working on it] the past four years, ‘Make America Great Again’ has been the thing that’s been on the covers of newspapers, down the sidewalk — we filmed this entire thing in the state of Georgia so we saw quite a few red hats in our time down there,” he says. “I think in that word, there’s this cavity, this vacuum in the historical record or this failure to acknowledge what America has always been since its inception. And if we don’t acknowledge those things, then slogans like this and even worse actions, like the ones we’ve seen play out over the last year, hell, over the last 100 years, will continue to proliferate. So I think it’s important to fill in those cavities and to acknowledge the truth of what this country is.”

Thuso Mbedo and William Jackson Harper in 'The Underground Railroad' (Amazon Prime)
Thuso Mbedo and William Jackson Harper in 'The Underground Railroad' (Photo: Amazon Prime)

“We’re so quick to be told that it happened such a long time ago and whatever pain, frustration and trauma you’re living in today is kind of invalidated,” Mbedo agreed. “And so I think it’s important that people who are still suffering the consequences of what happened 400 years ago do still feel seen.”

“I’m hoping that this is one of those pieces that makes people question themselves, and I’m hoping that it makes people question the folks who they’ve surrounded themselves with,” says Harper (The Good Place, We Broke Up). “I think we all like to think that when it comes to freedom or inequality, that we all would’ve been on the right side of history. And the fact of the matter is, a lot of us would not have been.”

Adds Atim (Bounty Hunters): “I think it’s really time to see a story about slavery and about race-based oppression. I feel like this story is a call to arms in a way. Because there’s so much hope, there’s so much about the future, there’s so much about what can be achieved by human will while also still putting that up against the brutality and pitting that up against the absolute worst parts of humanity and saying, ‘Look we can be better. We can do better than this.’ To be reminded of these things, it can be really painful. It can be really difficult to be confronted with those images. But we cannot shy away from that history. We cannot bury it. We cannot ignore it.”

The Underground Railroad is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Video produced by Nurys Castillo and edited by Jimmie Rhee

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